“How did you say it happened?” The ER doctor looked my age. He looped the gauze over the red, swollen skin of my forearm as I clenched my teeth, fighting off a scream.
“Bathtub,” I managed to croak. He and my mother exchanged a glance.
“Your arm must have been in there for some time,” he said, meeting my eyes. “These are some serious burns.”
What could I say? That I tested the water before reaching in and it didn’t seem that hot? That it felt like something grabbed me and held me under? I could see in the doctor’s eyes that he thought I was crazy—that I did it on purpose. Anything I could say to explain what happened wouldn’t help.
So I looked away.
I didn’t remember much about the ride to the hospital, except that Joseph and both of my parents were with me. And thankfully I didn’t remember my mother picking me up off the bathroom floor, or getting me in the car as she must have. I could barely look at her. When the doctor finished with my bandage, he pulled her into the hallway.
I focused on the searing pain in my arm to avoid thinking about where I was. The antiseptic smell invaded my nostrils, the hospital air leached into my skin. I clenched my jaw against the nausea and leaned against the window to feel the cool glass on my cheek.
My father must have been filling out paperwork, because Joseph sat and waited out there, all alone. He looked so small. And still. His eyes were downcast and his face—God. His face was so scared. A hard ache rose in my throat. I had a glimpse of how terrified he must have been when I was in the hospital the last time, seeing his big sister swallowed up in a hospital bed. And now here we were again, not even three months later. It was a relief when my mother finally returned to lead me out of the room. We were all silent on the ride home.
When we arrived back at the house, Daniel was there. He rounded on me when I walked in the door. “Mara, are you okay?”
I nodded. “Just a burn.”
“I want to talk to Mara for a bit, Daniel,” my mother said. “I’ll come to your room in a while.”
Her voice was a threat, but Daniel looked unperturbed, more worried about me than anything else.
My mother led the way down the hall to my bedroom and sat on my bed. I sat on my chair.
“I’m making an appointment for you to talk to someone tomorrow,” she said.
I nodded, as Joseph’s terrified face appeared in my mind’s eye. He was just a kid. I’d put him through enough. And between the burn, the mirrors, the laughter, the nightmares—maybe it was time to do things my mother’s way. Maybe talking to someone would help.
“The doctor said you must have held your arm under water for a long time to get second-degree burns. And you stayed there until I found you?” she asked, her voice raw. “What were you thinking, Mara?”
My voice was laced with defeat. “I was going to take a bath, but the earrings—” I took a shaky breath. “The earrings you lent me fell into the tub. I had to get them before I could unplug the drain.”
“Did you?” my mother asked.
I shook my head. “No.” My voice cracked.
My mother’s eyebrows knit together. She walked over to me and put her hand on my earlobe. I felt her finger unhook the back of an earring. She held the emerald and diamond stud in her flat palm. I lifted my hand to my other ear; that one was in too. I removed the earring and placed it in her hand as tears welled in my eyes.
I’d imagined the whole thing.
MARA DYER?” THE RECEPTIONIST CALLED OUT. I shot up. The magazine I’d been not-reading fell to the floor, open to an NC-17 photograph of two naked models straddling a handsomely suited actor. Rather racy for a psychiatrist’s office. I picked up the magazine and set it on the coffee table, then walked over to the door the smiling receptionist was pointing at. I went in.
The psychiatrist took off her glasses and set them on her desk as she rose. “Mara, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Rebecca Maillard.”
We shook hands. I stared at the seating options. An armchair. The obligatory couch. A desk chair. Probably some kind of test. I chose the armchair.
Dr. Maillard smiled and crossed her legs. She was thin. My mother’s age. Maybe they even knew each other. “So, what brings you here today, Mara?” she asked.
I held out my bandaged arm. Dr. Maillard raised her eyebrows, waiting for me to speak. So I did.
“I burned myself.”
“Do you mean, you were burned, or you burned yourself?”
She was quick, this one. “I was burned, but my mother thinks I burned myself.”
“How did it happen?”
I took a deep breath and told her about the earrings and the bathtub. But not the unlocked front door. Or the box in my closet that I didn’t remember taking down. One thing at a time.
“Has anything like that happened before?”
“Like what?” I scanned the books on her shelves; the diagnostic manual, pharmacological volumes, journals. Nothing interesting or unusual. It could have been anyone’s office. There was no personality.
Dr. Maillard paused before answering. “Was last night the first time you’ve been in the hospital?”
I narrowed my eyes at her. She sounded more like a lawyer than a psychiatrist. “Why ask if you already know the answer?”
“I don’t already know the answer,” Dr. Maillard said, unruffled.
“My mother didn’t tell you?”
“She told me that you moved here recently because you experienced a trauma back in Rhode Island, but I didn’t get a chance to speak with her for very long. I had to switch one of my other patients to see you on such short notice.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Dr. Maillard furrowed her eyebrows. “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Mara. I just hope I can help.”
I hoped so too, but I was starting to doubt it. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well, you can start by telling me if you’ve ever been in the hospital before,” she said, clasping her hands in her lap. I nodded.
“What for?” She looked at me with only casual interest. She wrote nothing down.
“My friends died in an accident. My best friend. I was there, but I wasn’t hurt.”
She looked confused. “Why were you in the hospital, then?”
“I was unconscious for three days.” My mouth didn’t seem to want to form the word “coma.”
“Your friends,” she said slowly. “How did they die?”